Great Race: 1981 Gatornationals
by Phil Burgess
The 1992 Mac Tools Gatornationals will long be remembered by drag racing history buffs as the site of one of the sport's most celebrated moments, the breaking of the 300-mph barrier by Kenny Bernstein.
But 11 years before that historic March weekend in Florida, back when Bernstein had just one national event trophy on his mantel and his first Winston championship was still four years away, the 1981 edition of the Gatornationals brought the house down.
Until the 1981 Gatornationals, only one race — the fabled 1975 Supernationals — had conferred upon it the loving memory of quarter-mile performance statisticians. The 12th edition of the Florida classic changed all of that.
During Thursday's first Pro qualifying session, Jeb Allen carried the front end of his English Leather dragster to half-track and ran a 5.62 to not only grab the No. 1 qualifying spot in Top Fuel but, more significantly, finally surpass Don Garlits' seven-year-old all-time best of 5.63 set at the 1975 Supernationals.
Also, for the first time since the 1975 Supernationals and for only the second time in history, all 16 Top Fuel cars qualified in the fives. Unheralded Kerry Sweigart's 5.96 in Alan Aroneck's Down & Dirty dragster occupied the bubble spot.
Gainesville Raceway had been recently resurfaced and was blessed with great weather, which aided Top Fuel racers Jody Smart (5.74), Tony Ceraolo (5.76), Mike Tarter (5.77), David Pace (5.94), and Sweigart (5.96) in racking up career bests to make the super show.
In Funny Car, Don "the Snake" Prudhomme set both ends of the national record in qualifying with a 5.926 at 247.25 mph in his Pepsi Challenger Omni. (Surprisingly, Prudhomme stole the speed record from a not-yet-famous John Force, who held the record for all of six minutes after a 246-mph blast.) Three Funny Car racers gained membership into the Cragar 5-Second Funny Car Club: Tom Hoover (5.95), Dale Armstrong (5.98), and Kenny Bernstein (5.99). Bernstein's 5.99 came in a first-round conquest of Mike Dunn's 6.06 in Roland Leong's King's Hawaiian Bread Omni in what was then the quickest side-by-side race in Funny Car history.
In eliminations, Shirley Muldowney ran off a string of 5.70s to take her 10th career Top Fuel win, eventually beating Smart, 5.81 to 5.89, in the final. Gordie Bonin, the 1977 and 1979 Gatornationals champ, continued his odd-year Funny Car winning streak at the Gators by taking the honors over Dale Pulde in the final, 6.18 to 6.21.
Bob Glidden's Ford Fairmont set the Pro Stock e.t. record at 8.31 to lead what was then the quickest Pro Stock field, but he didn't nab the victory. Glidden got out of shape in the semi's and lost to Frank Iaconio, who then defeated Pat Musi in the final round.
The winners in the three quickest Sportsman classes — Alcohol Dragster, Alcohol Funny Car, and Comp — were destined for future greatness as well.
Joe Amato, who just three years later at this event would record the sport's first 260-mph pass in a Top Fueler, won his third of five Alcohol Dragster titles and his second Gatornationals title. In the final, Amato's Tim Richards-tuned Hurst/Airheart Special, the No. 1 qualifier at 6.55, defeated Division 1 rival Chet Rickard, the No. 2 qualifier at 6.56, when Rickard red-lighted.
Alcohol Funny Car was owned by Ken Veney, then the reigning Winston champion. Veney qualified No. 1 at 6.50, then ran two 6.55s, a 6.58, and a 6.57 to defeat Bob Gottschalk in the final round. Qualifying was marred by a scary crash involving veteran Vern Moats, whose Iowa Roller Omni hit the guardrail at 200 mph.
Future Alcohol Funny Car kingpin Bob Newberry scored in Comp, defeating future Pro Stock Truck champ Larry Kopp in the final round.
The wildest final may have been in Modified. Mike Cannon's D/G Opel blew the engine in the staging beams just as the light went green; however, opponent Don Bowles, in an A/SM Fairmont, was unaware of the trouble and red-lighted.